At the end of a session a client asked me if I meditate. After I said yes she asked me what benefits I derive from meditation. Since our time was over and I wanted to give her a thoughtful response I told her that I would post the answer as this week’s topic on Psych ‘n’ Roll Radio.
I practice mindfulness meditation, which is also known as vipassana or sitting meditation. It is a Buddhist practice that western practitioners have adapted for western psychology and medicine. Two well-known proponents are Jon Kabatt-Zinn and Jack Kornfield.
The technique is a simple one. To practice you sit in a comfortable position for up to twenty minutes to one-half hour. The instruction is to notice and follow one’s own natural breathing. The inhale and exhale of the breath becomes the focal point of the practice. You may liken the breath as the ebb and flow of the tides, the waves rolling in and out on the beach. Though the instruction is to stay focused on the breath, distractions will deter the meditator and attention will leave the focal point. Distractions can be anything from outside noise like the ticking of a clock or traffic sounds beyond the room, to ones own physcial sensations (an itch, an ache, pain, feelings and thoughts).The meditator is instructed to notice attention has left to go to the specific distraction and to move away from the distraction and return to the focal point. Like this a second ebb and flow is created. The ebb and flow of the breath with the ebb and flow of the distraction and then returning attention back to the breath. With this, a calming rhythm is created. The meditator may notice going to deeper places of consciousness, deeper levels of relaxation, the comfort of being with him or her self, mindfulness of important self-truths, and a greater universal and/or spiritual connection.
Research in mindfulness meditation has shown that this approach reduces stress, supports health, increases psychological awareness, fosters a sense of well-being and a connection to others and deeper universal truths.
As a tool in psychotherapy, I use mindfulness meditation to teach people two very important lessons. The first is how to stay present, or as it is commonly called “to stay in the here and now,” by focusing on the breath. The breath, as I tell my clients, is always in the present. By doing this my clients learn how to let go of negative, painful, or catastrophic thinking patterns. The second, is to help clients understand the connection between their thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Worries about the future may produce anxiety and depression. Dwelling on the past contributes to resentment and depression. Focusing on the present releases these painful emotional responses.
All of us are good story tellers. We’ve got scores of them rattling around in our heads on any given day. Sometimes the stories are positive and hopeful and filled with dreams of success, love, and friendship. Other times, and clearly when people are emotionally symptomatic, the stories are negative, even catastrophic, and usually out of consicous awareness. During meditation, you may become more aware of the negative or hurtful stories you tell yourself and understand the connection between the narrative and the “symptoms” you are livng with. I’ll give you an example: During meditation a client realized that the depressed feeling he was having during the day was related to a television show he’d been watching and how that show made him think of a terrible outcome to a medical test he’d taken. All day, but not in his awareness until he meditated, he was certain he was going to have a painful death from a malignancy. When he connected the thought to his emotions and returned his attention back to his breath, he was able to release the pain he’d been carrying. The diagnostic test, by the way, came back negative. Another lesson he learned was that our stories are not reliable predictors of the future.
For those of you that would like a more complete discussion of Mindfulness Meditation I’ve provided the following You-Tube lecture by Jon Kabatt- Zinn. It’s the first in the musical set queue.